21st Century Schools

The Personal Learning Plan


In a report for the Department for Education and Skills in England in 1996, entitled “The Shape of Things to Come: Personalised Learning through Collaboration”, Charles Leadbetter described the secondary school as “a factory of learning…..among the last great Fordist institutions, where people in large numbers go at the same time, to work in the same place, to a centrally devised schedule announced by the sound of a bell”.

Scotland’s “factories of learning” are a product of the comprehensive system, a tradition which has served the country well for the past forty years or so and arguably -depending on your definition of “comprehensive”- since the end of the 19th century when the Education (Scotland) Act created an early state system by encouraging the churches to hand over control of their schools to elected school boards. It was a defining moment, one which would change the accepted view of education as an elitist academic pursuit.  From the early days of elementary education through selection and the eleven-plus examination, this model eventually provided a system of education in Scotland which gave equal opportunities to all young people regardless of their background, a principle which is still held dear today by teachers, parents and most politicians alike.

However, what was appropriate for the 20th century will very quickly become inappropriate for the 21st, and the nature of our secondary schools will have to change if they are to survive the next hundred years. Increasingly there is a tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the institution, and the battlefield has become the “introduction” of personal learning planning, part of the Scottish Executive’s review of education from 3-18. Earlier this year the Association of Headteachers advised its members to boycott the plans on the grounds of  “manageability and workload”, and the leader of one of the two main secondary teachers’associations was quoted in the national press as saying that there is “an inherent falseness in the idea of everyone having personalised learning”. The best we can hope for is that he was misquoted or that he didn’t manage to say exactly what he meant. Otherwise, what a depressing thought – he may as well have said that all children are the same.

Let’s assume for a moment that what he actually meant was that teaching is an extremely demanding job, that classes are often considerably larger than they should be, and that teachers find it difficult to find time to spend with every individual in the class. No argument there. However, effective teachers recognise personal learning planning as something which they are engaged in on a regular basis, and usually by second nature. Conversely, those teachers who do not involve their students in the decision-making process, at least informally if not with any real formal structure, may have realised by now that their relationships with pupils are not always the most successful, and that the most disruptive pupils are usually those who have not yet taken or been offered any responsibility for their own learning.

The personalised learning debate though is much more fundamental than just the latest salvo in the war between teachers and employers about workload issues; it goes to the very heart of our perceptions of the ways in which people learn. You either take the view that children go to school to be taught a whole load of things which they didn’t know before, more or less at the same time and in the same place, or you don’t.

 Leadbetter himself highlights the limitations of what he calls a “single standardised timetable imposed from above” and suggests that the challenge of leading a successful school in the 21st century will be met most comfortably by those who are able to manage the relationship between independence, distinctiveness and collaboration, calling on the resources and the active participation of the wider community, most notably parents. For him, “personalised learning puts the emphasis on learning through interaction and co-creation: children learn more effectively by participating more fully in their learning.”

The difficulty for us at the moment is that we are all dancing to the tune of centrally-imposed, top-down targets which, if manipulated intelligently, may create the temporary illusion of improvement, but which at the same time encourage schools to be conservative and cautious, and education continues to be something which is done to you rather than something you do for yourself.


A version of this article was published in TES on 9 February 2007.


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